Status set exercise using the Hydra model

Posted on: October 1, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

Status set exercise using the Hydra model

Exploring and understanding your status set though the lens of the Hydra model starts with a quick and simple status count and, using some basic tools from sociology, ends up by discussing the concept of master status. The exercise below will be helpful in understanding the concept of positionality discussed here.

Before beginning this exercise it is important to note the distinction between primary and secondary groups. Primary groups are characterized by an emotional intimacy, and the most obvious example is the family. Secondary groups are more affectively distanced and are instrumentally based, such as in a committee meeting. This exercise is geared toward only secondary group membership.

Step One 1: A Binary look
Look at the heads of the Hydra. Each represents a significant privileging force driven by the process of toxic othering, creating and maintaining the marginalization of those who are toxically othered. Moving from left to right give yourself a 1 or 0 based on how you believe you are viewed by others. The top score you can get is an eight by being male, white, from the ‘Global north’, a cis hetrosexual, upper class, fully able, neither very young nor old, and a human. The lowest score possible is a 1, and would be, for ample, from a female, BIPOC, from the ‘Global south’, trans/queer, poor, not able in some or many ways, and very young or old. Anyone doing this exercise is human.

Step Two: Beyond the binary
Virtually anyone asked to do the first step of this status set exercise will reject immediately the assumption that most (or all) of these heads of the Hydra is best seen as binary.

In this step you are to explore each privileging force and describe how the ‘1 or 0′ scoring can be replaced by a much more nuanced discussion of each privileging force. For example, beginning with the first head “Patriarchy’ which infers a gender binary. This dated understanding of gender is now largely viewed as being overly simplistic and inaccurate. Considering at all of the heads of the Hydra, instead of a binary we must now see a range or a continuum. All the other heads can be similarly critiqued in short order except perhaps the last one, Anthropocentrism, since we are all human and enjoy the privileges brought on by our systemic ‘othering’ of non-human life forms.

As part of your discussion exposing the overly simplistic binary consider these questions:

    • What are the ends of each continuum and what are the intermediate statuses?
    • What historical forces have helped define and shape each continuum?
    • How have these continua changed over time?

      This image was used by my Intro to Sociology students critiquing the Race/ethnicity binary.

    • How do these continua vary cross-culturally?
    • In what other ways can we critique seeing any of these privileging forces as a binary?

[See here for how my past students responded to this challenge.]

Step Three: More ascribed statues
When talking about statuses sociologists typically separate them into two buckets. Those which are projected upon us by the society in which we are born are called ascribed and the ones which we earn or otherwise acquire over time are called achieved. Examples of achieved status include, for example, educational degrees, elected leadership positions, jobs and job promotions, and getting married.

Just as we critiqued the binary implied in Step One of this exercise, we must also question the ‘ascribed/achieved’ binary. For example, social class begins as an ascribed status but as one reaches adulthood it becomes at least in part an achieved status. A second very important example is religion. Is religion ascribed or achieved? The answer to that questions is clearly culturally bound, and the answer may be quite different in the US as compared to, for example, Bangladesh.

As part of your discussion on ascribed and achieved statuses consider these questions:

  • The eight heads of the Hydra represent different major ascribed statues, but are there other ascribed statuses that hold a similar level of importance? That is, should there be other heads on the Hydra model in order to make it more inclusive?
  • Should the Hydra model be culture specific or can these privileging forces be seen as universal across all contemporary cultures?
  • Examples of other ascribed statues include being an atheist, our culturally defined degree of physical attractiveness, and our skin tone. What other ascribed statues could we include?
  • To what extent can achieved statuses (such as education) override the salience of one’s array of ascribed statuses?
  • Under what circumstances and in what situations do one’s achieved statuses become more important than ascribed statuses?

Step four: Master status
A person’s master status is what people first see when entering a new social setting. What people see when they see us is for the most part out of our control. We all engage in impression management, but some of our ascribed statuses stand out nonetheless. Understanding master status means recognizing that situationally one component of our status set may rise above both the other ascribed statuses and even our ascribed statuses. Here are some examples.

  • When an American African-American female humanitarian worker with World Vision gets off the plane in Wajir, Kenya to do work in the Dadaab Refugee Complex her master status, i.e., the one most salient to the refugees looking at her as she deplanes, is that she is from the Global north, an American.
  • When a female walks unannounced into a men’s athletic locker room her master status is his apparent gender identity, not her age, race, class, or other ascribed status.
  • When a 7 foot person walks into a room her/his physical stature is initially the most salient feature noticed by those present.

Here are some questions concerning master status:

  • Statuses can have varying levels of salience depending upon the social setting. In socially homogeneous settings where one’s status set is similar to all others present, how can more nuanced differences become important?
  • In a secondary group situation how long does master status stay relevant? At what point do people begin seeing a more multi dimensional picture?
  • In any new social setting what are some ways and/or various achieved statuses can override any ascribed status set?
  • Give a personal example where you were aware that you were being interacted with based on your master status. How did this situation make you feel?

Step five: Life chances and your status set
Our ascribed statuses, as represented by our position vis-a-vis each head of the Hydra, have a massive effect on our lives. Our ‘life chances’, a term coined by German sociologist Max Weber, are the many probabilistic factors impacting our lifelong journey as a social being. Perhaps an understatement,  our life chances are heavily influenced by our status set. Our secondary group interactions typically begin with being seen in terms of our master status and then more so by our entire status set, both ascribed and achieved. Accurately assessing one’s status set helps provide the insight for understanding the status set of others with whom you interact, especially in secondary groups. Otherwise stated, sensitivity of the nuances of one’s own status set promotes a deeper empathy when interacting with others.





Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022.

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